State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 47 & 48 1991


The La Trobe Library

The Collecting of Australiana in the State Library of Victoria has always been regarded as of special importance. Throughout the 135 years of the State Library's existence, from the very first purchases made, material of Australian and especially Victorian interest has been consistently searched out and acquired. In 1951, the idea was conceived of celebrating the centenary of both responsible government in Victoria and severance from New South Wales, by erecting a separate building in which all material relating to Australia and Australian interests could be brought together in one place. The instigator of this idea was Professor R. M. Crawford, then Professor of History at the University of Melbourne, who envisaged a separate Australiana collection ‘not only to house historical documents, but also works of Australian literature and the arts’ to serve ‘not only historical students, but creative workers in all fields who wish to draw inspiration from their own country’.1
The Premier of the day, Mr J. F. McDonald, accepted the suggestion as a suitable centenary project for Victoria and as an enduring monument to the pioneers providing encouragement and facilities for the study of Australian history and literature and awakening a sense of responsibility among Victorians for preserving the records of the past. Although the foundation stone was laid on 2 July 1951 by Mr McDonald, the La Trobe Library did not open to the public until fourteen years later, on 29 March, 1965.
Public Works Department architects were commissioned during the Premiership of Sir Henry Bolte to design the building as a modern wing of the State Library of Victoria facing La Trobe Street. Building operations, which did not begin until 1962, finished in 1964.
At the official opening ceremony, held in the Library's Irving Benson Hall on 6 September 1965, the Chairman of the Library Trustees, Sir Irving Benson, referred to the La Trobe Library as ‘a real treasure house holding the rich, fascinating collection of the story of our State of Victoria’.2 Sir Henry Bolte, who performed the opening ceremony, referred in his speech to the perceived future development of the La Trobe collections:
I really believe that the treasures we are going to acquire because we now have adequate facilities for housing and for exhibition and for their discriminate use, we will now attract many donations. (sic) And I appeal to all the citizens, not only of this State, citizens outside this State, that have these valuable documents in their possession, that this is the right place to house them. They will, of course, be treasured; they'll be cared for, they'll be preserved, and which is far more important, they'll be available for many, many generations… All we have to do is to attract them to the one central point and … treasure them and look after them. That, to me, is the importance of this building.3
The new Library was named to commemorate the contribution to the political, social and cultural life of Victoria of Charles Joseph La Trobe, superintendent of the Port Phillip District from 1839 to 1850, and Lieutenant-Governor from 1851 until his return to England in 1854.
‘The La Trobe Library holds “the rich fascinating collection of the story of our state of Victoria.”’
It is fair to say that in the 21 years since its opening, the La Trobe Library has built up a formidable reputation for the services it has provided, and scholars throughout Australia and overseas are indebted to its resources. A separate library building has certainly given the Australiana collection of the State Library a distinct identity which has stimulated donations. It should be pointed out that donations account for a large and growing proportion of acquisitions in the Australiana area, far beyond Sir Henry Bolte's dreams.
Before the opening of the La Trobe Library some 9,000 volumes of Australian history and literature were housed in a small Australian Reading Room in the main Reference Library. In 1965, 40,000 volumes were extracted from the Reference Library's holdings for the new wing. These covered the subject areas of discovery and exploration, history and travel, biography, Aboriginal history
and culture, language and literature, together with related bibliographies and indexes. To these were added general periodicals, directories and electoral rolls, parliamentary papers, debates and gazettes.

Exterior of the La Trobe Library at the time of its Opening, September 1965

Since 1965 this collection of books, pamphlets and periodicals has grown to about 100,000 volumes.
While the depth of the Library's Victorian holdings is due principally to the provision for legal deposit in the State Library of a copy of all works published in Victoria, which has existed since 1869, the foundations of the collection were undoubtedly laid in the earliest days of the Library's existence — the first important purchase, for instance, when the Library opened in 1856, was Gould's Birds of Australia, brought for £140 and now valued at $100,000. In these days too, the Library acquired the first Victorian imprints, the Melbourne Union Benefit Society, Articles and Rules, 1839, and George Arden's Latest Information with Regard to Australia Felix, 1840. Subsequent decades laid the foundations of the basic collection of all the principal works in Australian history, biography, travel and exploration, and of the collection of Australian literature. The bequest of the J. K. Moir Collection in 1958 greatly strengthened the Library's holdings of Australian poetry and fiction, many of the volumes being signed copies with authors’ annotations, and also of the works of Australian private presses.
In addition the State Library now purchases most Australian publications, and fills gaps in the
holdings by regularly checking antiquarian book catalogues.
As a result, the Library is fortunate in having an Australian collection of books to rival that in the larger libraries in Canberra and Sydney.
Today, the La Trobe Library forms a department within the Information Services Division of the State Library. Material collected includes books, pamphlets, periodicals, newspapers, manuscripts, pictures, photographs and ephemera. Access is available to anyone needing these resources.
The main focus of these collections is on Australian material or material relating to Australia and, in particular, to Victoria. However, material of Australian and Victorian interest exists in many of the collections of the State Library of Victoria.
The La Trobe Library contains the State Library’ s collections on Australia in the subject fields of history, travel, biography, literature and anthropology, and is especially strong in material related to Victoria. The geographical scope of the La Trobe collections is limited to Australia and its dependencies, other than the Australian Antarctic Territory.
A further focus of the La Trobe collection of printed books and serials relates to Victorian imprints. Printed publications have been acquired by the Library under legal deposit since 1869. The State Copyright Act 1869 provided for the deposit with the then Melbourne Public Library of all works published in Victoria and this provision continues to this day. The Act requires all publishers to lodge one copy of each publication with the State Library of Victoria.
The Library actively seeks material under these provisions as a means of building a comprehensive collection of Victorian imprints and assumes a consequent obligation to preserve a collection of such material for future use.
The La Trobe Library also houses the State Library's Newspaper Collection — overseas as well as Australian newspapers — the best hard copy collection of newspapers in the country.
The collection is particularly strong, as would be expected, in Victorian newspapers, metropolitan and country, and dating from the first, hand-written Melbourne Advertiser of 1838 to the latest issue of current papers. There are surprising strengths in the collection of papers from other States as well. In fact, the Library holds a large number of interstate newspapers, many of which are not held in any other Australian library. Since 1972, the State Library has taken an active role in microfilming all Victorian, and particularly Melbourne, newspapers in order to make them fully accessible to all who wish to use them.
A major special collection in the La Trobe Library is the Picture Collection. Its holdings of more than 600,000 items are of biographical, cultural, environmental, historical, sociological and topographical interest relating to Victoria. The collection includes paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, sculpture, architectural plans and drawings, posters, posters, postcards and some printed ephemera and objects. Both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are represented. Material specifically relating to other states and countries is not collected unless it forms an integral part of an existing collection or adds significantly to collections formed in the past.
Another important special collection is the Australian Manuscripts Collection, the major repository for all types of unpublished non-official records relating to Victoria's history and its inhabitants. It seeks to gather material which will record and reflect the full range of human activity in the State, from the earliest times until the present day.
The articles which follow describe the major special collections and some of the smaller ones in more detail.
It is the role of the La Trobe Library to maintain and develop a collection of books, manuscripts, pictures and other materials which will provide a permanent record of Australia's, and especially Victoria's, history and culture. In fulfilling this role, the La Trobe collection is a national resource.
The strength of the La Trobe collections, the specialist knowledge of the staff, and the sheer enthusiasm for every aspect of Australia's history and heritage on the part of its clientele, ensures that the La Trobe Library is the centre for Australiana research in this State, and the international centre for studies relating to Victoria.
Dianne Reilly


“The La Trobe Library; statement by R.M. Crawford for the Centenary Committee: August 3rd, 1950.” p.4, in MS 8217. File of correspondence and notes, relating to the foundation of the La Trobe Library. La Trobe Collection, State Library of Victoria.


MS 7935. “Official opening of the La Trobe Library.” Transcript of tape, p.2. La Trobe Collection, State Library of Victoria.


MS 7935. “Official opening of the La Trobe Library.” Transcript of tape, pp.3–4. La Trobe Collection, State Library of Victoria.